"Stop Investing in Systems that Don’t Work"

Dr Pasi SahlbergBerlin (GER), December 2017 - A senior adviser to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and to the Finnish Government claimed recently that education ministers in England, Australia, and the United States are continuing to invest in unsuccessful education systems in spite of clear evidence that they are not working.

Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a Visiting Professor of Education at Harvard University, told participants in the opening session of OEB, Europe's largest conference on technology-assisted learning, that the evidence was clear that education systems that emphasise cooperation, collaboration, networking, and helping others are doing much better than those that focus on competition and testing, following the so-called GERM (Global Educational Reform) model.

Dr Sahlberg, who is the author of "Hard Questions on Global Educational Change" and a member of the Scottish Government's International Council of Education Advisers, said that the education systems of Canada, Finland, Estonia, and Japan were now clearly more successful than those of the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Chile.

In spite of this, politicians continue to support systems that do not work, he claimed. "Why are so many education ministers still so keen on the mythology of education reform when the evidence is so clear?"

Sahlberg opines that unsuccessful education systems are characterised by a belief in competition, standardisation, de-professionalisation, test-based accountability, and privatisation. The outstanding features of successful education systems, on the other hand, are cooperation, risk taking and creativity, professionalism, trust-based responsibility ("not test-based accountability"), and ensuring an "equitable" public education for all.

In spite of the fact that Finland has been at the top of the PISA education performance tables published by the OECD for several years, he said that some countries refused to learn from Finland's experience. He singled out England for particular criticism.

"England has been very reluctant to have anything to do with Finland and the Finnish way," he said. He suggested that part of the reason that politicians continue to support failing education systems is that they seem easier to "sell" to the public and, as a consequence, "GERM travels like an infection around the world. It is so much easier to sell choice and competition. It is much harder to convince people about the importance of collaboration, responsibility and trust."

In spite of this, however, he pointed out that many countries and regions are now shifting from the GERM model towards a new system. He cited Scotland, Ontario in Canada, and parts of Australia and New Zealand as being much more interested in the Finnish model. "Canada is in education heaven, where equity and excellence meet."

OEB's opening session, which was chaired by broadcast journalist Nik Gowing, focussed on the challenge of preparing for a new age of uncertainty. Author and anti-ageism campaigner Abigail Trafford told the conference that by 2030, 1.4 billion people will be over the age of 60. Describing herself as "the leader of a new liberation movement," she asked "how are we all going to cope when our hair is grey and people say we're too old?"

The answer may be to see longevity as an advantage and a new opportunity, she claimed. "We have to change our culture. We have to fight ageism. It undermines society and paralyses individuals. We have to expose and overcome it." Ms Trafford called for the world to embrace a "new adolescence" as a means of meeting the challenge of longevity.  "We know we live in the shadow of mortality, but this gives us the edge," she said. "Now is the time for dreaming and reinventing our lives - just like adolescence… Get yourself inside the shoes of people who are reinventing their lives. Like adolescents, they need help and support. It's an opportunity."

Broadcaster Aleks Krotoski told the conference that she was not concerned about the new age of uncertainty. "Technology is our creative partner. Technology offers us opportunities to reinvent. The uncertainty we create in offers opportunities for reinvention." She claimed that the nature of storytelling and creativity has changed because technology has facilitated mass interaction in the creative process. "Now we are on the cusp of the next literacy because we are composing in a completely different way," she said.

Moderator Nik Gowing said that "over 2,000 delegates from more than 80 countries" attended OEB this year. "OEB has been built up into a real force for online education," he said.